By @SimonCocking

Irish Tech News recently caught up with Prof Brian Caulfield, @CaulfieldBrian Director, Insight UCD, Lead Investigator ARCH Centre and Dean of Physiotherapy at University College Dublin. The Insight Centre aims to conduct high impact research in data analytics that has significant impact on industry and society by enabling better decision making.

Finding practical applications of big data to help people in their daily lives

Their goal is to identify areas where use of new accessibility to data offers great opportunities to help people, both those suffering from chronic illnesses and high level athletes. Both areas in which Insight has been carrying out key research, including current projects with the Irish Rugby Football Union. Hopefully these insights helped contribute to Ireland’s successful result against France in the 6 Nations this year.

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Using data to help humans make better decisions

Caulfield was keen to explain that the Insight Centre’s goal was to use data as a human aid. Humans are still needed to then analyse and interpret this data, and consider the best ways to use it. The goals is to provide better data for people to make decisions, not to replace the humans. He expressed delight at the Institute’s willingness to appoint someone who was not a data scientist, but instead a physiotherapist by training, to lead the development and use of the research. The reason being for him to bring his domain knowledge to ensure asking as many relevant questions of the data as possible.

The aim is to leverage the data, and work out how to do so. To ask the questions about what they are looking at. Get the computer scientists to devise how to extract the relevant data, and then make sure it is analysed in the right way to gain the most useful insights.

We all use performance enhancing tools in sport

Caulfield said it was important to remember that we need to consider carefully the phrase ‘performance enhancing’ when considering sport. Athletes are now competing in vary different ways to 100 or even 20 years ago. There are many new ‘ultra’ endurance events. Athletes now use special diet, food, clothes to achieve optimal results.  We could all be considered to be taking ‘performance enhancing’ tools in this context. When you look back to the original Tour de France, how on earth did anyone complete it without performance enhancers? 

Limitations of first wave of wearables may affect future adoption levels 

Caulfield was concerned that current wave of wearable fitness tracking devices may put people off using them. Recent study of early adopters in the States, found that most stopped using them 6 months later. He was worried that if the the early adopters don’t continue using them for their health, then what will the usage levels be among those people with chronic health issues, who really need it.

Another problem with current wearables on the market is that they offer only a limited interface to your date. In the terms and conditions when you sign up, your data is then the property of the company whose product your bought. This means you no longer own this data, and quite often will not even be allowed access to it. Another limitation in these current health and fitness tracking devices is that there is a relatively restricted range of aspects to the data that you can view. Different people like to see data in different ways, visually, numerically. Also as well as viewing it differently, there are also different aspects to the data that you don’t have the ability to see. 

The limits of current wearable health tracking devices

The algorithms are often proprietary too, and not available for consideration. This means that you don’t know how the actual metrics were gathered, which of course limits your options in terms of really understanding what the data means. The footstepping program is also not very accurate. Caulfield had found that in a large number of current wearable devices on the market the effectiveness of their data monitoring was questionable, based on tests they had run. In this context, in many cases basic apps on smart phones were often as accurate if not more so, than many of the personal fitness tracking devices.

Elite athletes and chronically sick people, people who explicitly signed up for the program, have been happy for their data to be used, as long as they had agreed for it to be used, and were told what it was used for. This marks a big difference to the early iOS and Android approach where they just took all of your data, without your consent or even knowledge. The Insight centre are currently in partnership with the IRFU. The aim is to monitor performance, for all those areas that can be predicted and monitored, which of course doesn’t cover on pitch impacts. It is a really interesting area to watch, and hopefully we’ll be hearing more from Caulfield and his team.

You can read more about the recent research papers produced by the Insight Centre, several of them with clear commerical applications for industry.



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